For someone who knows virtually nothing about American football this wasn’t an easy novel for me to read. The only two Delillo novels I hadn’t read were this and Americana, his first and I’m determined to complete the set. I think it was Martin Amis who said that when we say we love an author we generally mean we love half of the novels written by them. This is certainly true for me with regards DeLillo. I hated Ratner’s Star and was left indifferent by Point Omega, Cosmopolis and Players. However Underworld, Mao 2, White Noise and Libra are all among my favourite novels of all time.
This was Delillo’s second novel and there’s a sense of him straining to find his stride and voice. The mesmerising urban lyricism of his middle period is not quite on display here. There are, though, several of his favourite motifs – most prevailingly his use of jargon to create an atmosphere of misinformation, disenchantment and detachment. “The pattern match begins with a search for a substring of a given string that has a specified structure in the string manipulation language”
It’s essentially a novel about power. The yearning to acquire power and the means available to us for acquiring it nowadays. The central character is a star running back for a collegiate football team. He’s ambivalent in his strivings for power. He has a penchant for self-destruction. For sabotaging his prospects. Football, like war, is a power struggle of synchronised strategy, bluffed manoeuvres, ordered systems of advancement and a constant parallel is both drawn up and deconstructed in the novel between football and war. “War is the ultimate realization of modern technology. For centuries men have tested themselves in war. War was the final test, the great experience, the privilege, the honour, the self-sacrifice or what have you, the absolutely ultimate determination of what kind of man you were. War was the great challenge and the great evaluator. It told you how much you were worth. But it’s different today. Few men want to go off and fight. We prove ourselves, our manhood, in other ways, in making money, in skydiving, in hunting mountain lions with bow and arrow, in acquiring power of one kind or another. And I think we can forget ideology”
The central female character is massively and purposefully overweight. She is wilfully renouncing the power of her beauty. “It’s hard to be beautiful. You have an obligation to people. You almost become public property. You can lose yourself and get almost mentally disturbed on just the public nature of being beautiful. Don’t think I haven’t thought about it. You can get completely lost in that whole dumb mess. And anyway who’s to say what’s beautiful and what’s ugly?”
One hugely memorable scene is an impromptu game of football played in driving snow. There’s a lot of humour and wilful absurdity (one character is learning by heart Rilke’s Duino elegies in the original despite not knowing a word of German; another collects insects).